Monday, February 3, 2014

Using Ritual in Writing

I recently taught a module (which is an intensive four-hour class) for SHU about using magic, ritual, and religion in popular fiction.  I felt such a module was important because lots of aspiring (and a few established) authors seem to have difficulty with these three concepts.  So I'd like to share my perspective about these things, starting with the concept of "ritual."

The dictionary definition of "ritual" is as follows:  A)  a formal ceremony or series of acts that is always performed in the same way
B)  an act or series of acts done in a particular situation and in the same way each time.

When we think of "ritual," we usually think of hooded cloaks, candles, swords, and a bunch of people standing around beating drums.  And that's okay.  That's certainly one type of ritual.  The characteristics of a ritual do seem to confirm that image.  They're repeated, they take time, intended to have an outcome, might be symbolic, etc.  And while we think of them as religious ceremonies, that's not always the case. 

See, everyone uses ritual.  Everyone.  Including you.  Religious people, yeah we already covered that. But so do law officials.  What else do you call it when you're told "All Rise" when the judge walks in? Even the reading of the Miranda rights can be considered a ritual.  Serial killers, both real and fictional, are well known for their rituals.  Students engage in their rituals on a daily basis, and increase them around final exam time.

Athletes also engage in ritual.  MMA fighter and all-around bad-ass Chuck Liddel used to paint his toenails black before every fight.  Why?  Because it was a way to focus his energies.  It was something he did before a fight, otherwise he just didn't feel right.  Think about that for a moment and ask yourself about your own rituals.  

When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is make my bed, then I turn on the shower, brush my teeth, then take a shower.  Then I go for coffee.  If I don't do all those things in that order, my morning feels off.  I'm not fully awake without both my coffee and shower.  So that's my morning ritual.  I have others…For everything from going on a date or writing to going for a ride or getting to the ring for a match.  

So what are your rituals?  When you're preparing for school or work?  Preparing for a night out?  Getting into your car?  Do you have any special habits with your friends?  

Most important:  How does this relate to your writing?  Since every real person in the world has ritual, so, too, should your characters.  Every character creates their own rituals for their own reasons, and creation of characters includes the creation of their tiny rituals that allow that character to function in real life.  I don't mean you need to fill page upon page with detailed description of rituals.  But you do need to at least have them in your head.  They allow you to add little things to your characters that make them come more to life.  Ask yourself:  Why did this ritual start?  What is the purpose?  How can I pull from my own experiences to make rituals for my character?  

Write On!

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